Monday, August 25, 2008

The Year of Living Biblically, by A.J. Jacobs

A friend made me a copy of the CD version of this book. She thought it was hilarious (as apparently do many others, based on the Amazon ratings). I warned her that I might not enjoy it, given my reaction to Jacobs' first book (The Know-it-all). On the other hand, I am able to overcome preconceptions. I also don't turn down free books, whether or not I think I'll like them.

I listened to it while I was in my car, driving here and there alone. I think books-on-CD are wonderful companions on long rides. And short ones.

I won't keep you in suspense. I didn't like it.

Let's start with the premise: A.J., who somewhat calls himself Jewish, decides to take on the bible, both testaments, plus various side documents, and to live according to the scripture as closely as possible. He admits at the outset that one reason for his quest is to write a book about the experience. He says the other reason is that he has been, at best, agnostic all his life, and he wanted to find out for himself if there is anything in that book that speaks to him. Essentially, he purports to want to become a better person and wonders if the bible might help him in that quest.

To my mind, the "story" about becoming a better, more spiritual person by living by the bible is the plot of the forthcoming book. It is really all about the book. It's clear from the start that he is not about to take any of it seriously, although from time to time he will stop to reflect and try to share his insights with us. Such as they are.

There is a lot of material there to work with, to be sure. Think of the strange commandments (there are a lot more than ten, he finds out right away by poring over the entire book and listing them all), like not wearing anything made of both linen and...what is it again? Cotton? I can't remember. Some kinds of mixed fabrics, anyway. And the requirement to grow a beard but never trim it. How about this one: build a special kind of hut every year and live inside it for a specified period. The bible is truly rich with strange, unexplainable rules, followed by almost nobody.

A few people do follow some of these rules. Different groups of people, different rules, generally. A.J. hunts some of them down and learns from them. What does he learn? Nothing, actually, except that the bible says to do it so you do it. Some tell him there is an explanation for every rule, that all can be explained. Others say no, all cannot be explained, there is no explanation, but that doesn't mean you don't do them. They are still important.

Still others veer to the spirit rather than the letter of the law. Most modern churches are in this camp. Although they would have to admit that they look past some spirits or interpret the hell out of them (literally). There is no doubt that every religion picks and chooses what to follow and what not to follow, regardless of how "literal" the religion is.

Some of the information A.J. finds out, by consulting with his religious advisors and hunting down strange cults and the odd relative, is quite interesting. In every case, though, the story is about A.J. Here I am with this group of crazy dancers and I'm dancing and I feel like I'm having an out-of-body experience. Here I am with this other group of people who are buying chickens and handing them to a chicken-killer to kill, in some kind of effort to save my soul. Here I am dealing with my wife, who is trying to get pregnant, who is going through in-vitro fertilization, and look what a great husband I am, or I am not. Here I am dealing with the death of a neighbor, look at how much I am feeling.

At least one religious guy tells A.J. it isn't about becoming a better person. It's about serving God. That one sets A.J. back a bit. He actually thinks about it. But he's soon back up on that horse because that's the one he rode in on.

This version of the book, the CD version, is read by A.J. himself. If I had any doubts about his sincerity they are smashed to bits just by his tone. That is, if I wanted to give him the benefit of the doubt just listening to him speak makes it impossible. I have tried to pinpoint what it is about his voice that puts me on edge. Here's the closest I can come to narrowing it down:

You are in a class. The teacher tells you to read some parts of a book written by someone else. You don't want to appear soft or sentimental so when you get to deeper thoughts or feelings you read them in a tone that is almost mocking. That's what we get here.

It's a book about one person making a silly commitment to follow the bible nearly literally so he can write about it in a somewhat funny way.

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